By Chris Garrard and Jess Worth, Co-directors of Culture Unstained
Something is seriously wrong at the Science Museum Group (SMG). Last week, Channel 4 News reported on Culture Unstained’s latest investigation into the museum’s controversial sponsorship deal with the oil giant Shell.
As we revealed, the museum had signed up to a “gagging clause” which prevented it from making “any statement or issuing any publicity” that could be seen as “discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation” of its sponsor.
A huge backlash unfolded across social media, with climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeting: “The Science Museum just killed irony (and their own reputation).”
But this gagging clause was just one in a whole list of serious ethical breaches that we uncovered. This includes an internal due diligence report on Shell’s dire human rights and environmental record that had been compiled but then dismissed, along with emails showing the museum director praising and helping to promote Shell’s widely criticised “climate plan”.
We also revealed how the museum’s criteria for scrutinising sponsors’ climate credentials are deeply flawed and set the bar lower than that for its own aims on climate change. In fact, the bar is set so low that the museum very nearly signed a major sponsorship deal with a group of twelve oil giants, including Exxon and Chevron, that are renowned for their huge emissions, disruptive lobbying, and ties to climate denial. Emails suggest that it ultimately did not go forward because just one of the member companies – Saudi Aramco – was not far enough along its ability to transition to a lower-carbon pathway, according to the Transition Pathway Initative’s assessment (TPI), even though TPI had made clear that none of these companies are on a pathway to 1.5°C.
But rather than be accountable and respond meaningfully to this list of shortcomings revealed by our investigation, the SMG has instead adopted the oil industry’s tactics of deflect and deny. In response, Jonathan Newby, acting director of the SMG told Channel 4 that, “We entirely reject the unsubstantiated claim that our curators were in any way inhibited in carrying out their vital role in an expert, independent and thorough manner.”
But active curatorial meddling by Shell wasn’t the charge that was being levelled at the museum. Signing up to the gagging clause had created the possibility of a “chilling effect”, where museum staff must refrain from speaking openly about the reality of Shell’s activities because it could be seen as damaging the company’s goodwill or reputation. It is especially problematic in this case because Shell is sponsoring an exhibition on carbon capture and storage (CCS). It’s an area of Shell’s business that is particularly controversial because the company has so often overstated the nascent technology’s potential in order to justify continuing to explore for more fossil fuels and not slashing emissions, while at the same time claiming it can go “net zero” by 2050.
While Shell might not have directly influenced the content of the exhibition, what’s more troubling is the way in which the stance and statements of the museum have echoed Shell’s own narrative on the energy transition and the role for fossil fuel companies, lending Shell valuable social legitimacy.
Rather than directly addressing the many concerns being raised about Shell’s dire record on climate change and human rights, the museum’s management have claimed that oil firms have the “capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent challenges of climate change” – even though no oil company is yet cutting emissions at the speed and scale that scientists say we need.
And when the SMG’s Chair Mary Archer took part in one of the museum’s “Climate Talks”, she pushed the fossil fuel industry’s argument that, “if there was no demand for fossil fuels, they wouldn’t produce them”. This is a cynical attempt to put responsibility for corporate emissions onto individual consumers.
These comments all help to strengthen the fossil fuel industry’s narrative that oil majors can be trusted to manage their own transition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In its internal due diligence report, the SMG explicitly described Shell’s core business as the “exploration, development, refining and marketing of oil and natural gas”. From the outset, it doesn’t sound like a company you would ask to sponsor an exhibition on climate change.
The report, however, also itemised legal rulings against Shell, the company’s climate and human rights impacts, and its ties to climate disinformation. The museum therefore knew the potential risks to its reputation – but these concerns were dismissed.
The director and board of the SMG, however, have a duty to protect the museum’s reputation. The SMG’s own “Group Ethics Policy” makes this clear, stating that the “SMG will not seek or accept donations, sponsorship or grants where acceptance of these funds would do material damage to the reputation, independence or integrity of SMG”.
Yet, since the exhibition opened, there have been open letters, large-scale petitions, a high-profile boycott and creative protests – all covered in stories across the mainstream media. There have also been damning revelations about the director’s backing of the oil industry – such as setting up a “special event” with stakeholders for Shell to promote its controversial climate plan.
As Greta Thunberg, lawyers, and scientists noted on Twitter, the museum’s reputation has been demonstrably damaged as a direct result of decisions taken at the top. Curators and staff right across the SMG continue to face huge pressures and their bosses’ out-of-touch stance on sponsorship is arguably now undermining their work.
Meanwhile, the Museums Association, the official membership body for museums in the UK, also has a Code of Ethics. In addition to recommending museums understand “the ethical standards of commercial partners with a view to maintaining public trust and integrity”, it states that museums should “support free speech and freedom of expression.” And, as holders of public office, the director and chair of the SMG are expected to abide by Nolan’s 7 Principles of Public Life, to “submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary” to ensure they are being accountable and that they should “take decisions in an open and transparent manner”.
We believe, however, that they have repeatedly failed to do this. By signing up to a gagging clause with Shell, they contractually prevented themselves from fulfilling these ethical duties. When museum stakeholders, including scientists and exhibition contributors, raised legitimate concerns about Shell’s sponsorship, SMG dismissed and ignored them. And in the case of youth climate strikers, the museum included their placards in the Shell-sponsored exhibition without letting them know, then asked police to shut down their protest against Shell’s sponsorship. All of this disregards the crucial importance of supporting free expression within museums.
In response to our investigation, the SMG has stated that it regards “the blanket approach demanded by some campaigners of severing all relationships with energy companies as unproductive.” We contend, though, that it’s the director of the SMG that has adopted an uncritical “blanket approach”, telling the FT in 2019 that “Even if the Science Museum were lavishly publicly funded I would still want to have sponsorship from the oil companies.”
The director’s argument also distorts the scale of public concern by suggesting that the many scientists, youth strikers, culture sector workers, and tens of thousands of the public who have raised objections are a small group that can be dismissed out of hand. In reality, by partnering with a major oil company like Shell, it’s the SMG that is out of step with the wider museums sector, public opinion and, it seems, the urgency with which we need to be phasing out oil and fossil gas in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Dangerously, it seems the SMG has bought into the oil industry’s false narrative that it is actually doing enough to drive the energy transition. It is then rewarding some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel extractors – Equinor, BP, and Shell – with the social legitimacy of prominent sponsorship deals, framing them as fellow travellers on the decarbonisation journey when they remain some of the biggest stumbling blocks to the deep and rapid emissions cuts we need.
A “science museum” should be advocating for an honest appraisal of climate science, not helping to disguise the fact that no oil and gas major is anywhere near on track for helping limit global warming to 1.5°C or even 2°C as agreed in the Paris Climate Accord. It’s time those at the top of the SMG started fulfilling their responsibilities, not cheerleading for Big Oil’s hollow climate claims.